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Kennedy Center honors bestowed on Jones

Sunday, December 22, 2002

By Patricia Sheridan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

From the farm to fame, from nearly mute to a voice that can conjure good or evil, actor James Earl Jones has had an extraordinary personal and professional journey.



"The Kennedy Center Honors"

When: 9 p.m. Friday on CBS.

Host: Walter Cronkite.

His stage and screen credits culminated earlier this month in a celebration of his career at the 25th anniversary of the "Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts" (9 p.m. Friday, CBS). He was recognized for his contributions to the cultural arts along with Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Simon, Chita Rivera and James Levine.

Unlike the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys, which spotlight that year's touted troubadours, the Kennedy Center Honors are given for a lifetime of work, with excellence being the main measure.

Jones, who hasn't read a review since the 1960s, said he "must have missed something" when he found out he was being recognized. "I just did the work," he said about his focus on career not accolades.

The work he did earned him an Oscar nomination, two Tonys, four Emmys, a Golden Globe, two OBIEs and a Grammy among other awards over the years, which makes it hard to believe he didn't see this coming.

"That it would come to this is just a total surprise to me," he insisted.

Though it wasn't something he expected, Jones is feeling very good about it. "But not as good as my wife," he said laughing. "She loves it best of all, because it gives her a chance to get a new gown and dress up."

Having been a guest and on the nominating committee in past years, Jones knew what to expect.

"This is a wonderful event," he observed, adding that if the Oscars followed the same formula it would save a lot of angst and aggravation. "[The Academy Awards] would be a lot better of an event, but you've got to pick a winner - right? And that's when it becomes totally ridiculous and everybody gets hysterical and anxious and mean-spirited and campaigning and spending a lot of money for nothing."

That kind of supercilious behavior doesn't impress a man who grew up on a farm in Michigan. His father was prizefighter, but it was his grandparents who raised him. Because of a severe stutter and shyness, Jones did not speak from the age of 4 until 14. But he did write poetry.

"I had become a poet, because every kid has to find a way to express himself," he noted. It was a single incident that changed the course of his life. His English teacher told him the poem he wrote was too good, so to prove he wrote it, the teacher told him to get up in front of the class and recite it by heart.

"Well my honor was on the line," remembered Jones. "I couldn't even appreciate the left-handed compliment." Because he was dealing with his own thoughts and feelings, the words flowed and something changed. "I found I was able to switch on under, not that kind of pressure, but that kind of mandate," he said. It was then that he began to regain the power of speech. And his voice resonates with it today.

"I'm still shy and I'm still a stutterer actually," he confessed. "But I don't let that stop me anymore."

The fact his voice is what distinguishes him after his silent youth is just "a big irony," said Jones. And he doesn't see his classroom stand as bravery. "It was just a challenge, but I don't even like the word." To Jones, the word suggests a struggle, and he feels life is full of enough of that without translating more into it. "You just have to gain strength, and then it's not a struggle."

Being a victim of circumstance is not a role he allowed himself to play in real life. Yet it was his portrayal on Broadway of a manipulated boxer in "The Great White Hope" that won him his first Tony award. That was 1969. His second Tony came playing a baseball player who has a hard time relating to his son in August Wilson's "Fences."

Having seen a death in the ring, he was not a fan of boxing. "My father was only an amateur, but he got out before it destroyed his brain," he recalled. It was his father who advised him and helped him train for the part. They were estranged when he was growing up, an experience that also may have informed his role in Wilson's play.

"It took me 20 years after 'Great White Hope' to find a comparable play that was important to me," he said of "Fences." "August wants to write about black people, but he doesn't proselytize. The issues are about the human experience, and he gives you that with all barrels."

Jones doesn't see his skin color as a bonding agent or a big deal. He finds lumping groups together because of something so superficial an oversimplification. "You see I was raised on a farm, and farm people who are black are very different from urban people who are black. But we are all judged on the scale of the urban people," he said. "And that's not us at all.

"A culture can bond you, but color does not. Color doesn't cut it either way, against you or for you."

It seems the ironies in his life have steeled him for success. Whether he's doing the voice of Darth Vader (which he said he might revisit in the next "Star Wars" movie, but he warns they could hire an imitator for what would amount to five minutes of work) or commercials for Verizon, Jones is just happy to be working.

"It has just been a glorious experience that has left me in awe at times."

Patricia Sheridan can be reached at psheridan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2613.

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